Now that the existential threat to Italy’s participation in the Six Nations has dialled down a notch, the spotlight is shifting back to a patch of ground well worn in this jurisdiction: the pavement leading to Ireland’s Number 10. And perhaps because we are almost at the halfway point of the tournament, other stuff is getting in the way – like the World Cup.
t’s appropriate that the France game is fresh in the mind because RWC2023 is already a huge deal for the French – as it should be for any host nation. So when Fabien Galthié was leading the review of the win over Ireland 10 days ago, it was filtered through the prism of the World Cup and France’s incremental progress towards the goal of a first title.
Having had a run at it in 2007 – and getting off to a disastrous start on opening night, against Argentina – they’ve circled around again, this time with a vastly better operation. They moved heaven and earth – dumping a pile of it on Ireland in the process – to secure the hosting rights to next year’s tournament. It makes sense for them to be on a twin-track now: what’s immediately in front of them; and what’s due in autumn next year.
For Andy Farrell, life is simpler. If Galthié has both plates spinning at the same time, then Farrell has cause only for one: the Championship. Every time he picks a big squad to cover a November series, the Six Nations or a summer tour then he can make allowances for how these selections would benefit a World Cup. But once the Championship is up and running, it’s solely about that tournament. It can’t be anything else.
This doesn’t straitjacket him into ‘one game at a time’ mode, just one tournament at a time. In this case, for example, he has Italy on Sunday, followed by a week to breathe, then a week to prepare for the trip to Twickenham on March 12.
Political correctness doesn’t allow the Ireland coach to describe Italy as part of the preparation for the last two rounds, against England and Scotland. It doesn’t allow him to say he’ll run around Lansdowne Road with his keks on his head if his boys create Championship history on Sunday by losing this fixture at home. But when he’s banging on about how much progress Italy are making, how there are no easy games at this level and how anything can happen in sport, he’ll be thinking about how he can use Sunday towards a storming Championship finish.
That creates a minor dilemma. History has shown us that points’ difference can be the straw that separates winners from runners up. So this, weather permitting, is an opportunity to make hay. Pile on the Italians and fill yer boots. The tricky bit is in covering the bases in the last two rounds.
Farrell loves Johnny Sexton and it’s a relief for the coach his captain has gone from looking like retirement home material in 2020 to undisputed first choice this season. He can’t allow himself to dwell on the captain’s age or his future, only the present. So as long as Sexton is number one, should he be picked at number 10?
Yes, unless it makes more sense to change the way he is used. For example, Ireland will hack up against Italy regardless of whether Sexton or Joey Carbery starts at out-half. With both on hand, Farrell will feel confident he has his bases covered, especially with Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan in the backline.
So he might feel it’s a better shout to start Carbery, simply to add to his Championship experience. This would involve an awkward conversation with Sexton. Part of what keeps the captain on his game is the mono track focus on being needed to lead all the time. This doesn’t leave many gaps in the chat to discuss what’s best for Carbery.
It’s worth remembering all this deliberation focuses solely on the here and now: getting Ireland into the last fortnight of the competition with 11 points from a possible 15 and a points’ difference in the region of plus 55-60. It has nothing to do with the World Cup.
With the same rationale, Farrell will include Conor Murray on the bench again, regardless of whether or not the coach thinks he will be in the mix for France next year. Fair enough – we think it’s a bad call, but if that’s Farrell’s thinking, then you can have no problems with the process – aside from Murray being past his best now, never mind the version we’ll get in 18 months.
It beggars belief, for example, that you can fetch up on match day with an opener and a closer as your two nines, lads with different styles and attributes, and be secure in your head the game will serve you up something that suits your plan.
If your team needs tempo and lightning ruck speed to get ahead, then having a closer who specialises in mopping up has no place in your squad, simply because he might be called into action after two minutes. Or, indeed, between warm-up and kick-off.
Instead, it will be the summer tour to New Zealand when Farrell can loosen his focus a little and consider the bigger picture. However, this has complications, too. Does it make sense to be giving central contracts to players like Murray and Peter O’Mahony and then leaving them behind on a tour when having senior players around could be quite useful?
This is a conversation Andy Farrell can have in his head when the season is winding up. For now, pick what’s best to get the job done in the Six Nations.